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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Mel faces the music

But on Mel Gibson's road to recovery with his public, he seems unsure of the tune.

October 13, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

IS this Step 5 of 12?

"Here, we share our lists with our Higher Power and another human being," it says about Step 5 on the website for Hazelden, the renowned recovery center. "This confession often brings a vast sense of relief."

The "Higher Power" is normally called God, I think, but here let's call her Diane. She is Diane Sawyer, God of What Were You Thinking.

She had descended in all her creamy godliness from the Mountain of Morning Shows to interview Mel Gibson about the night he got loaded on tequila, was arrested for driving while impaired and decided to conduct an ad hoc seminar entitled: "The Poison of the Jews: From Jerusalem to Moonshadows."

During the "Good Morning America" interview Thursday, conducted in the offices of his company, Icon Productions, you could see a bead of sweat on Gibson's upper lip. He didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, nor face -- or maybe he did and this was his way of projecting vulnerability?

If that's the case, it seemed like an actor's bad choice, for the overall impression was Gibson overly hinged. For Sawyer too, this particular interview called for a more complicated recipe than the usual smoothie of demure sycophancy. Try two cups of consternation with a cup of judgment, and empathy, to taste. Simmer with smugness, for Katie Couric bailed on these kinds of "gets."

Celebrities are afforded this privilege from broadcast news divisions -- they screw up and receive what amounts to a free political ad to win our love back. And Gibson, politically, could still be a viable movie star, as opposed to Mark Foley, who can't still be a congressman.

In the religion of celebrity, the TV confessional is one station of the cross. Gibson's alleged anti-Semitism first gained mainstream traction when he was doing something completely sober, making "The Passion of the Christ."

"To be anti-Semitic is a sin," Gibson told Sawyer back then. Now they were meeting again, under similar circumstances, though Sawyer, at least in Part 1, made no mention of this.

This time, Gibson knew what he had to do -- deny that he's an anti-Semite, again, but this time with the tune arranged differently.

It's about the horrors of alcoholism, him and his anger-management issues -- unleashed not just on Jewish sheriff's deputies but inanimate things with no religious or ethnic affiliation, like toasters.

"I'm kind of a work in progress right now," Gibson said. "You got me a little green. I mean, I just got out of the straitjacket with the messy hair."

He seemed to pantomime crazy. This guided Sawyer to the issue of his mug shot, and his whole mug-shot thought process, Gibson noted that "the first thing that went through my mind was, like, Nick Nolte's photograph."

Drunk enough to spew slurs ("Are you a Jew?" he asked the arresting officer, Deputy James Mee, and later blathered about how "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world"), sober enough to remember Nolte. That seemed about right for an actor.

In the immediate aftermath of the story it was commentator Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, who noted dryly: "One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the 'Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion' are valid after all."

"The stuff that comes out when you're loaded is, it's extreme," Gibson said.

"But if it's not in you, is it going to come out?" Sawyer asked.

"It has to have some kind of place somewhere, and you have to ask where is it coming from?" Gibson replied.

"And that," said Sawyer, now in voice-over, "is exactly where we will begin, tomorrow."

It was like the punch line of a thousand comedies with a therapist character: "I'm afraid our time is up." There is something grotesque, in itself, about teasing to hate, Sawyer tacitly promising us that this morning, in Part 2 of the interview, we will see the propaganda movie of Mel Gibson's mind, Sawyer our date down the red carpet.

It's beyond lament that celebrity trumps journalism and the public trust in broadcast news; now we're just watching the last of the mighty institutions fall. Most recently "60 Minutes," where two weeks ago "CBS Evening News" anchor and "60 Minutes" contributor Couric did a piece on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Couric: "Would you like to get married one day?"

Rice: "Oh, wouldn't we all love to find somebody that you want to live the rest of your life with, sure, but I never thought you wanted to get married in the abstract. You want to get married to someone. And so, I just never think I want to get married to someone. But who knows, maybe one of these days."

"But these days," said Couric in voice-over, "she's consumed by waging war and promoting democracy."

Like it's needlepoint or a busy social life. I know it's a morning show, but it would have been nice -- and even journalistic! -- for Sawyer on Thursday to have come clean on the financial deals that existed between Gibson's company, Icon Productions, and Sawyer's, ABC, at the time of the actor-director's arrest July 28.

"By the way, no questions were off limits," Sawyer said in her intro -- except, evidently, those ABC evidently wasn't inclined to ask. Disney canceled a Gibson-produced Holocaust miniseries for ABC but not his upcoming feature "Apocalypto," which is being released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures.

It mirrors the debate in Hollywood right now, the ugliness of his comments quickly giving way to the heart of the matter: Yeah, but can we still work with him?

paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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